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Thousands of applications still pending in Sonoma, Marin rental-assistance programs

California’s and most local eviction moratoriums and rental relief programs should have ended June 30, but the counties haven’t shut the door on the pandemic-spawned emergency assistance.

A backlog of applications waiting to be processed run in the thousands and unallocated relief funds stand in the millions of dollars. The program pays property managers and owners, but tenants who can’t pay their monthly rent have to apply.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) has created frustration among rental managers, and with the lifting of the moratoriums for those not in the system, an uptick in evictions.

Sonoma County has paid out $31.7 million in ERAP funding as of July 11 and now has $8 million to spend. Forty cases have already approved to receive about $280,000, and 2,510 cases are under review.

County spokesman Matt Brown said the local government plans to exhaust the funding by Sept. 30.

If that happens, it’s not a moment too soon for property managers like Keith Becker of DeDe’s Rentals & Property Management based in Santa Rosa.

“We don’t know if the program is wrapping up or not. New applications closed March 31st, and the (eviction) protections ended June 30th. Now what? As a landlord, if we have tenants in that 2,500 under review, we don’t have enough information to go forward to pursue evictions. Everyone’s in the dark,” he said.

As one of the largest property management firms in Sonoma County, Becker handles 500 homeowners and 480 tenants. At one point, two tenants racked up $20,000 each in back rent over months and months. Now, he’s juggling one renter in Healdsburg who owes $4,400.

“If we know when this program is wrapping up, property owners and tenants can make informed decisions,” he said.

This may mean evictions for some who are so underwater, they can’t maintain the shelter.

Elizabeth Avila, who manages the hotline for the North Bay Organizing Project, a Sonoma County tenant advocacy group, estimated that, of 525 calls for tenant assistance received since August 2020, about a third is related to eviction.

“We’re definitely getting calls about this,” she said of the high-priced North Bay housing market. “Most (calls) are regarding their ability to pay rent.”

Based on the numbers coming out of Sonoma County Superior Court, the county’s moratorium curbed cases related to evictions while the protections were in place, guarding against a crisis that may have sent many more into financial ruin.

In 2021, 342 cases involving eviction or “unlawful detainers” — meaning those questioning the removal of residency — were filed. In just roughly the first half of this year, there were 369 filings. Before the eviction bans were put into place in 2020, the court received 936 filings. It’s unclear whether all is relative to unpaid rent, as the courts do not itemize them as such.

“Absolutely, I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Sonoma County Superior Court Presiding Judge Shelly Averill said, noting the pandemic and subsequent protections “had an impact.”

In Marin County, the superior court has taken in 168 filings on the matter so far this year, with 50 remaining active, court officials reported. In 2019, 193 were filed.

Marin County’s ban on evictions remains until Sept. 30. The evictions component of the program specifically applies to the unincorporated areas of the county such as Marin City — with some cities such as Novato and Corte Madera extending their own, according to county officials. The rental relief component encompasses the whole county.

As of the end of June, 600 ERAP filings were pending, with about $8 million in the coffers remaining out of the $32.5 million the county received.

“We have not missed a beat,” said Leelee Thomas, who helps to run the county program. “I think many households have not dug out from the impact of the pandemic.”

On the North Bay’s upper east side, the Napa County Superior Court reported 170 pending eviction cases as of this month. No figures were provided on previous timeframes.

But Pablo Zatarain, executive director of the Fair Housing of Napa Valley tenant advocacy group, said he’s heard evictions have started to ramp up since June 30 was the last day for both the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act (CTRA) and the COVID-19 Rental Housing Recovery Act, the state’s dual-purpose program.

Napa County, which did not implement its own ERAP rental relief program, terminated its eviction moratorium in September 2020.

“All the protections are gone. What we’ve seen is the judges have had a certain understanding of what the law meant,” Zatarain said of instances of confusion among some cases.

But the California Apartment Association remains steadfast at urging its members to hold off on eviction until the programs end statewide and the money ends up on doorsteps.

“At the same time, CAA realizes that many landlords, particularly mom-and-pop owners, have gone more than two years without collecting rent, making further delays in eviction untenable,” association spokesman Mike Nemeth said in a statement.

The fear lies with the pervasive problem of owners losing their property because the mortgage still needs to be paid.

Tom Bannon, chief executive officer of the California Apartment Association, said: “Evictions are the last resort, but after two years of some residents not paying rent, nothing remains for many rental property owners to do.”

Much of the issue hinges on a waiting game. PolicyLink, which conducts data research on the topic, found that more than 28,000 initial applicants and 57,000 people who reapplied have not heard responses to their filings, according to a July 20 a report by the news organization Cal Matters.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget allocates nearly $2 billion to reimburse the state for a line of credit opened earlier this year to pay tenants who submitted applications prior to March 31. It does not include any new funds for rent relief, Cal Matters reported.

In the meantime, all await the processing machine working across the state.

“It’s better to wait and get the money than to go through with the time, cost and stress of an eviction, especially knowing that relief funds could be just around the corner,” Nemeth told the Business Journal.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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